Robert Campin, A Woman
A Man and a Woman
A man and a woman, clearly husband and wife, gaze towards each other. We don‘t know who they were, but their clothes, which are not excessively rich, suggest that they were relatively prosperous townspeople. The clarity and credibility of these portraits, which were designed as a pair, is astonishing – but they do more than reflect how the sitters looked.
Campin’s ability to convey textures of skin, fur and fabric means that we are not immediately aware of the skill with which he arranged the sitters’ clothes and even their features. These are highly ordered geometric compositions devised to show us what the couple were like: an older, world-weary man and a bright, optimistic young woman. The man slouches and the drooping lines of his face are echoed by his clothes; the woman’s skin is smooth, her eyes are bright and her features and clothes form rising lines.
A man and a woman, clearly husband and wife, gaze towards each other. We don‘t know who they were, but their clothes, which are not excessively rich, suggest that they were relatively prosperous townspeople.
The portraits were certainly designed as a pair. The oak boards of the supports are from the same tree; the measurements of the painted surfaces are to a millimetre the same; both have traces of the same green pigments, evidently from the original frame, at their edges; the backs of both are marbled. It is possible that they were originally hinged together to form a diptych, though any evidence of this has been lost with the original frame.
These are some of the most powerful portraits to survive from the early Renaissance, and their clarity and credibility is astonishing. Though the heads have been emphasised – they are slightly enlarged in comparison with the bodies – these are obviously convincing representations of the man and woman.
But Campin’s ability to convey the textures of skin, fur and fabric means that we are not immediately aware of the artifice with which he arranged the sitters’ clothes, and even their features. The portraits aren't just representations of how the couple looked, they are highly ordered geometric compositions devised to show us what they were like: an older, world-weary man and a bright, optimistic young woman. An incredibly skilful draughtsman, Campin has done this using patterns. The man’s sagging skin, his furrowed brow and the downward turning lines at the corner of his mouth are echoed in the lines of his clothes, while the woman’s face and clothes make a pattern of upward turning lines. Her hands, brought upwards into her portrait, give the work even more lift.
Campin has, however, taken care to ensure that the portraits work well together. Both faces are strongly lit, so they stand out against the flat black background. Both are shown at a three-quarters angle, looking inwards towards one another. The man’s head is slightly larger, but Campin has balanced this by giving his wife a larger headdress and including her hands. The bold, limited colour scheme and careful composition unites the pictures. The red tail of his hat falls in diagonal lines to meet her white veils, making a strong visual link between the two paintings.
The narrow strips of bare wood would have been covered by the frame. Framed panels would have been made by professional joiners: the frames were built around the panels before the grounds were laid across both frames and panels, possibly by the artist. In these two portraits, the frames were decorated after the pictures had been completed. They appear to have been marbled in green and red. The backs were also marbled, in red and brown, but are very damaged. Paintings were not always hung on walls at the time and so the backs were sometimes decorated too.